Eddie Murphy’s Very, Very Bad Family Films, Ranked
To be fair, I have yet to see Candy Cane Lane, the new family film from Eddie Murphy that premieres on Prime Video this Friday. But the trailer does not fill me with confidence.
Looking at that, it’s understandable why many viewers will think, “Oh god, he’s not going back to those kinds of films again, is he?” Thanks to 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name, there was hope that we were about to embark on a Murphy renaissance, with the once-great comic discussing the possibility of doing another stand-up tour and refocusing his energies after years wasted on bad family films — the exact type of bad family film that Candy Cane Lane very much looks like. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised and it’ll prove to be a new Christmas classic. But again, I have my doubts.
It’s now been more than 25 years since Murphy — the king of 1980s comedies thanks to Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America — pivoted hard toward movies for tykes. This era has been widely, and deservedly, pilloried, but in honor of Candy Cane Lane, I decided to go back and rank his family films. Were they all terrible? Are there any gems amidst the garbage? Have I made a terrible mistake devoting my energies toward this despairing pursuit?
First, though, I had to establish what counted as a family film. After going back and forth, I decided that the Nutty Professor movies didn’t count: Even though they feature the Klumps, they’re not chiefly made for families, although tons of kids have seen them. (And if you feel like complaining about it, I’ll say that, if it had been included, The Nutty Professor would have ended up pretty high on this list. But, again, it doesn’t count.) Also, The Adventures of Pluto Nash didn’t make the cut. As bad as that movie is, it’s not primarily a kids’ film. Same for A Thousand Words, although one could argue that stinker doesn’t seem to be intended for human beings at all — maybe your dog would like it?
That left me with 11 out-and-out family/kids films to choose from. Ranking them was an unhappy exercise: These represent some of the worst films the Oscar nominee has ever unleashed upon the world. Feel free to quibble with the placement of any of these movies, but be advised: Many of them are merely varying degrees of atrocious.
Daddy Day Care (2003)
Reuniting after Dr. Dolittle 2, Murphy and director Steve Carr (who would go on to make Paul Blart: Mall Cop) combined forces for this witless modern spin on Mr. Mom, following two workaholics (Murphy and Jeff Garlin) who get laid off, deciding to go into business together running a daycare center. How hard could it be? Really hard! How funny was Daddy Day Care? Not at all! Yes, the movie was a hit, but this represents the nadir of Murphy’s family-friendly phase, presenting the comedian at his most listless. (Fun fact: Daddy Day Care inspired a sequel, Daddy Day Camp, with Cuba Gooding Jr. taking over the Murphy role. Apparently, Murphy didn’t take every bad role that came his way in the aughts.)
Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001)
Murphy was often overshadowed by the mischievous talking animals in Dr. Dolittle. Well, he’s more center stage in the sequel, and while that’s, in theory, a good thing, the Murphy we get in Dr. Dolittle 2 is the full-on cutesy version, not exactly the ace comic genius we’d loved from decades before. Audiences couldn’t get enough of this new, less-good Murphy, however: While not as massive a smash as the original, Dr. Dolittle 2 did really well, too. For as much as his original fans lamented the direction Murphy went, it was hard to blame him too much — clearly, there was a built-in demographic hungry for more of his kid-flick shtick.
The Haunted Mansion (2003)
This year’s Haunted Mansion was such a commercial and critical dud that, by comparison, Eddie Murphy’s 2003 film suddenly doesn’t look so bad now. But that’s revisionist history: The original (based on the Disney theme-park ride) is a slog, presenting Murphy as a workaholic — notice a theme here? — who’s a realtor, chasing after a potentially lucrative property that turns out to be filled with ghosts and ghouls. This effects-driven horror-comedy was disliked by critics — and Murphy. In early 2023, he admitted, “I did a Haunted Mansion movie, and it wasn’t very good. … My Haunted Mansion was not all that and a bag of chips.”
Shrek Forever After (2010)
Or, “The Shrek Movie That’s Like It’s a Wonderful Life.” In this fourth installment of the gargantuan franchise — which, at the time, was billed as the final chapter — Mike Myers’ Shrek wants to prove that, even though he’s now a respectable member of society, he still has the potential to be a frightening, wild creature. The orge’s wish is granted by Rumpelstiltskin, who obliges him… with a twist, showing Shrek what life would have been like if he was never born. There’s some debate whether Shrek Forever After is actually better than Shrek the Third, but both find Murphy going through the Donkey motions one more time. Honestly, I wish this franchise would go away, but nobody listens to me.
Shrek the Third (2007)
Or, “The Shrek Movie Where Donkey and Puss Switch Bodies.” The Shrek series was running out of gas by Shrek the Third, which you can tell because the filmmakers went in for gimmicks like, “Hey, what if two of the sidekick characters traded places?” Merlin puts a spell on the two critters, causing the switcheroo, and while it’s amusing to hear Murphy’s voice coming out of Puss — and, likewise, Antonio Banderas’ voice coming out of Donkey — it’s worth pointing out that, as a technical exercise, it’s not nearly as challenging for an actor as, say, what Nicolas Cage and John Travolta do in Face/Off.
Dr. Dolittle (1998)
Hey, the guy had success remaking one iconic comedy — why not try it again? Shortly after The Nutty Professor, Murphy turned his attention to Dr. Dolittle, a redo of the 1967 Oscar-winning musical starring Rex Harrison. This one, more geared to the family crowd than Nutty, paired Murphy with a series of talking animals, with voices provided by (among others) Norm Macdonald, Albert Brooks and Chris Rock. The joke is that Murphy plays a surgeon who, as a kid, could understand what animals were saying — in adulthood, this talent is reignited, causing all kinds of mayhem. Put it this way: It is not a good sign for your movie when the supporting cast gets more laughs than Murphy does.
Meet Dave (2008)
Meet Dave was one of the first films that suggested that Eddie Murphy’s stranglehold on the family crowd was loosening, but this commercial failure actually has more going for it than some of his bigger kids’ film hits. The premise of this dopey comedy is that Dave (Murphy) is a guy who’s just arrived in New York, acting very oddly — because he’s actually an alien spaceship meant to look like a human. (Murphy also plays the tiny captain inside the ship guiding it around the Big Apple.) Meet Dave gave Murphy the chance to do some funny slapstick as the “spaceship” — the “Dave” the Earthlings meet is a classic fish-out-of-water character who tries his best to blend in, badly — but there’s still a sense of Murphy phoning it in, a malady that affected him so often during this era. At last, though, viewers seemed tired of putting up with his laziness.
Imagine That (2009)
If there is an “underrated” Eddie Murphy family film, it’s this pleasantly inoffensive fantasy-comedy about a workaholic — here we go again — who reconnects with his daughter (Yara Shahidi) through her ability to pretend. In Imagine That, Murphy’s driven finance bigshot has neglected his family, until his kid demonstrates that her security blanket and make-believe buddies are flawless predictors of the market. Sort of like a feature-length version of The Simpsons’ “Lisa the Greek” episode, except with extra emphasis on the importance of using your imagination, Imagine That is fairly obvious and formulaic, but it’s got heart and Murphy is actually pretty touching. That counts for something.
Shrek 2 (2004)
The first Shrek was a hit. The second was a phenomenon. Grossing nearly a billion dollars long before that sort of thing was commonplace, Shrek 2 started the idea of turning Donkey into different things. (In this one, he becomes a horse.) Regardless, Murphy remained the ace comic relief in this sequel, which expanded the original’s world without too much strain. Shrek 2 wasn’t as clever and novel as Part One, but its cheeky, irreverent humor suggested there was still plenty of life in this fractured fairy tale, which DreamWorks would make damn sure it exploited by pumping out more sequels and spin-offs.
Sort of a dry run for Donkey, Mushu was a wise-cracking dragon who’s the loyal sidekick to Mulan (Ming-Na Wen). You can hear a lot of the attitude he’d soon bring to Shrek here, being the designated “funny sidekick character” that Disney movies at that time all needed. (That said, Chinese viewers weren’t thrilled with Murphy’s portrayal.) Mulan isn’t as beloved as earlier Disney smashes like The Lion King, but it’s a real charmer, while also being slightly more somber than a lot of animated fare of the era. No doubt Mulan’s success gave Murphy an idea: Doing voices in kids’ films could be a financial windfall.
It’s telling that while I think Shrek is Murphy’s best family film, it’s still pretty low on the list of his all-time best films. But this smash, based on William Steig’s kids’ book, introduced the world to Shrek and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) — and also Donkey, among the most popular of all animated characters. Donkey doesn’t put up with any guff, and Murphy figured out how to turn his tough-talking, R-rated 1980s characters into a cuddly PG version that the masses would eat up. As brilliant a star as he was during the Beverly Hills Cop years, it’s likely that more human beings have seen him — or, rather, heard him — in these animated flicks than anywhere else. That’s slightly depressing, but there’s no denying he’s their highlight.